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Bill Holman

Bill Holman

Bill Holman
Photo by Lesley Bohm

Bill Holman, a seminal voice in jazz and the big band tradition, has died peacefully of natural causes at his home in the Hollywood Hills at the age of 96. Bill Holman had a profound impact on the American jazz landscape for over half a century, as composer and arranger for jazz ensembles large and small; for orchestra; for singers; notably for his own ensemble, the 16-piece Bill Holman Band; and in the latter part of his life, as educator both in the U.S. and in Europe.

Born and raised in Orange County, California, he started playing clarinet in junior high, then switched to tenor saxophone and formed his first band in high school. As a young man his initial field of interest was mechanical engineering, which he studied while serving in the U.S. Navy (1944-1946) and subsequently at UCLA. But by the end of the 1940s, his attention turned more to music. He enrolled at Westlake College of Music, and also studied privately with Russ Garcia. Among his earliest gigs was as tenor saxophonist in the Charlie Barnet Orchestra in the early 1950s.

When Stan Kenton hired Holman in 1952, he set in motion a multi-tiered musical partnership to last 27 years. After playing tenor in the sax section for a few years, Holman started to write arrangements for Kenton's band, which he continued to do for decades after he had left the band as a player. Among the many arrangements and compositions Holman wrote for the band, perhaps the most important was Contemporary Concepts, an album now considered not only a masterpiece but a portal to a new way of writing for jazz bands.

Holman's chief musical influence throughout his career was fellow tenor player Lester Young, about whom Holman spoke in reverential terms for his entire life. An avid classical music fan, Holman drew inspiration from this world as well, perhaps the most striking example being his arrangement for the Kenton band of What's New?, which was reportedly inspired by the 3rd and 4th string quartets of Bela Bartok.

Over the course of his career, Holman wrote some of the most iconic arrangements and compositions for big bands headed up by Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton, Count Basie, Louie Bellson, Maynard Ferguson, Gerry Mulligan and many more. The first of his Grammy nominations was for a delicious arrangement of "I'm Gonna Go Fishin'" for Peggy Lee, and he worked with many other singers, including Mel Torme, Carmen McRae, Natalie Cole, Anita O'Day, Manhattan Transfer, Ella Fitzgerald, the Fifth Dimension, Tony Bennett, Jackie & Roy, Michael Buble, and Pearl Bailey.

In 1975 he formed the Bill Holman Band, a 16-piece ensemble which rehearsed every week for 45 years, until the pandemic took rehearsals off the agenda in 2020. Until that time, the band performed in clubs, concerts and festivals throughout both the U.S. and Europe. The band recorded 5 albums: The Bill Holman Band (JVC, 1987); A View from the Side (JVC, 1995); Brilliant Corners: The Music of Thelonious Monk (JVC, 1997); Live (Jazzed Media, 2005) and Hommage (Jazzed Media, 2007). The second album's namesake piece, "A View from the Side", won a Grammy in 1996 for Best Instrumental Composition, and his arrangement of "Straight, No Chaser" for the third album won a Grammy in 1998 for Best Instrumental Arrangement. In 1987 he won a Grammy for his arrangement of "Take the A Train", written for Doc Severinsen and The Tonight Show Band. He and/or his band were nominated 14 additional times over the years, most recently in 2012, for Best Instrumental Composition for his "Without a Paddle". There are earlier big band recordings, made with a different ensemble: The Fabulous Bill Holman (Coral, 1958); In a Jazz Orbit (Andex, 1958) and Bill Holman's Great Big Band (Capitol, 1960).

For many years Holman did weeks-long residencies with some of the best jazz bands in Europe, writing compositions and arrangements for the groups, and conducting the bands at concerts. Among these ensembles are the very fine bands housed at radio stations in London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, and Berlin. He did recordings with some of them, like The Norwegian Radio Big Band Meets Bill Holman (1989); My Instrument is the Orchestra: Bill Holman Conducts The SWR Big Band; Further Adventures: Bill Holman with the Netherlands Metropole Orchestra; and Echoes of Aranjuez with the HR-Bigband Frankfurt. With the WDR Big Band in Cologne, he made many recordings, not commercially released but now archived at the station.

For decades Holman enjoyed teaching at composing/arranging clinics and master classes throughout both the U.S. and Europe. In the U.S., he taught at the Berklee, Eastman, Manhattan, and Grove Schools of Music and at many universities. After multiple residencies at Elmhurst College in Illinois, the school bestowed an honorary doctorate on Holman in 2009. Outside the U.S., in such countries as Germany, Holland, Switzerland, England and in Scandinavia, he was frequently invited to conduct established resident jazz orchestras at radio stations and festivals, in addition to educational clinics and workshops.

In 2010, the National Endowment for the Arts bestowed the NEA Jazz Masters Award - the nation's highest honor in jazz - on "composer, arranger and tenor saxophonist Bill Holman" and seven others, in recognition of a lifetime of extraordinary achievement. In announcing the awards, the NEA issued this statement: "These master artists have dedicated their lives to shaping and advancing the rich tradition of jazz. The NEA is pleased to recognize their individual creative talents and celebrate their combined musical contributions." The awards ceremony took place at Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra performed, in a program honoring the recipients' lives and works. Mr.Holman conducted the Orchestra in one of his compositions as part of the ceremonies. In 2000, the Smithsonian Institution established the Bill Holman Collection, housing mostly scores and memorabilia. In 2008, Holman won the Golden Score Award, issued by the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers. A film about Mr. Holman, Charting Jazz: The Mastery of Bill Holman, is currently in production.

Bill Holman married three times; his most recent partner in life, Nancy Pagani, pre-deceased him. He is survived by two sons, Jeff (Peggy) and Roger (Jeff); a step-daughter, Kathryn; grandchildren Max, Natalie, Gina, Rebecca, Christopher and Casey Jo; and great-grandchildren Kenna, Kori and Kami. His funeral will be private but plans are afoot for The Bill Holman Band to do one more concert as a tribute to his life and work. Contributions in his honor may be made to the Los Angeles Jazz Institute Archive (lajazzinstitute.org).

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Jack Goodwin donates his priceless Warne Marsh Collection!

Los Angeles Jazz Institute Membership

In addition to producing a number of live jazz events throughout the year, The Los Angeles Jazz Institute is the largest jazz archive and research center on the west coast and one of the largest and most comprehensive in the world.

The Los Angeles Jazz Institute is a 501c3, tax exempt, public benefit corporation. All donations are tax-deductible.

Basic membership is $50 per year

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Our Mission

Membership Benefits

*The special "Members Only-Limited Edition" CD
*Advance notice and discounts to all events

We also encourage monetary donations beyond the $50 membership level. All contributions go directly to the maintenance and operation of the Jazz Institute Archive. We also welcome donations of all types of jazz materials including recordings in all formats, books, magazines, paper items, artwork

Members Only CD
Currently there are 4 "members only" CDs to choose from. Quanities are extremely limited.

    features unissued radio broadcasts of the 1957 All Stars live from the Lighthouse. These broadcasts come from a short lived Los Angeles radio program called Nightlife that aired on KMLA on Wednesday nights at 11:30. This edition of the All-Stars featured Conte Candoli, Bob Cooper, Frank Rosolino, Victor Feldman, Howard Rumsey and Stan Levey.

    Rare and Unissued Chet Baker from the 1950s
    LAJI 009

    Chet Baker, Ascent of the Cool features rare and unissued recordings that document Chet's early years on the west coast. These recordings come from a variety of sources all of which are part of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute archive. The recording quality varies from track to track but the historical importance makes up for whatever flaws may exist. The sessions range from Chet's first known recording in 1949 to an appearance on the Stars of Jazz Television program in 1956. We've programmed the disc in chronological order which creates a fascinating listening experience. We hear Chet grow from a 19 year old trumpet player who is just beginning to find his way around the horn, to a full fledged jazz giant fully in command of his instrument.

    LAJI 007
    Shorty Rogers, Art Pepper, Wardell Gray, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Bob Enevoldsen, Hampton Hawes, Joe Mondragon, Lawrence Marable and June Christy. An unprecended gathering jazz stars captured live at the beginning of the west coast jazz movement.

    Shorty Rogers, Art Pepper, Wardell Gray, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Bob Enevoldsen, Hampton Hawes, Joe Mondragon, Lawrence Marable and June Christy.

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Our Mission

Our mission is to collect and preserve jazz materials and make them accessible to scholars, students, researchers and the jazz community. To accomplish this, we actively acquire new materials and continue to seek out important private collections. We also provide a setting where musicians and their estates can donate or loan their materials with the assurance that they will be preserved for future generations.

One of the things that makes the LAJI unique is that we actively use the materials in the Archive by maintaining a busy schedule of outreach activities including concerts, festivals, broadcasts, publications and the release of important recordings on compact disc. Member support along with private and corporate gifts play a vital role in keeping the Jazz Institute alive. Please consider becoming a member today.

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